Alberta’s COVID-19 contact-tracing app, which has been downloaded 268,064 times on Apple and Android phones, has only been used to track close contacts of 19 positive cases since it launched in May.
As of Monday, Alberta had 10,031 active cases. Dr. Deena Hinshaw said Alberta labs had completed more than 12,000 tests in a 24-hour period.
Since the pandemic began, 40,189 Albertans have tested positive for COVID-19.
The ABTraceTogether app has been used to identify and notify 70 close contacts in 19 of the province’s positive COVID-19 cases, an Alberta Health spokesperson confirmed.
That means the app has been used in less than 0.05 per cent of all positive cases in Alberta since May.
“It’s a matter of scale,” Health Minister Tyler Shandro said Tuesday. “As more people are adding on to and using the app, then we’re going to have more opportunity for two phones — when two people are in close contact for 15 minutes at a time — being able to have that recording.
“We have about 1,000 people per day that are continually adding, jumping onto the app. We’re thankful to those Albertans who are continuing to do that.
“Our cases are increasing. We are concerned with those rising numbers. This is one of our many tools to relieve and assist the pressures on our contact tracers,” Shandro said.
“Obviously we’ll want to continue to include this in our arsenal.”
The government and AHS worked with Deloitte to develop the app.
According to the government’s public disclosure of sole-source contracts, Deloitte Inc. was paid $650,000 in April “to customize an existing open source application for the province to perform COVID-19 contact tracing” and $300,000 in April “to build and support deployment” of the ABTraceTogether app.
NDP Opposition leader Rachel Notley is calling on Premier Jason Kenney to apologize for allowing “petty, playground, sandbox, little-boy politics” to hurt Albertans.
“What we’ve learned about the Alberta tracing app is that the premier needs to stand up today, he needs to apologize to Albertans. First of all, for lying to them in the middle of a pandemic.
“Secondly, for putting his own petty political grievances ahead of the health and wellbeing of Albertans.
“And then, what he must do, is announce that we will be moving forward to enable the federal app here in Alberta,” Notley said on Tuesday.
“It is absolutely jaw dropping that we are in a situation where our contact tracers — in the very words of Deena Hinshaw — are overwhelmed and we have barred Albertans from getting the benefit of an app that actually works, and justified that decision by lying to them about the real situation with the Alberta app.
“All Albertans deserve better from their premier,” she said.
Shandro said it’s the NDP that is politicizing this issue.
“For the Opposition to be jumping on and undermining any of the tools our province is using to be able to respond to the pandemic is really concerning for me. It’s really appalling for the NDP to do that, for them to be politicizing the issue.”
He said the reason the province hasn’t adopted the federal COVID-19 app is because it doesn’t align with Alberta’s contact-tracing system.
“They’re totally different apps. Ours is a contact-tracing app. It’s meant to be one of our many tools to be able to relieve the pressures on our contact tracers, to be able to help them. Instead of them manually interviewing people, it’s to relieve some pressure on our contact tracers.
“The federal app is not a contact-tracing app,” Shandro said.
“There’s been concerns that our public health officials here in Alberta as well as those in B.C. have had with it. Because it sends people to testing without that assessment.
“It’s an anonymous notification to somebody without any assessment,” Shandro added. “If there is no assessment and you’re directing someone to testing, that doesn’t help anybody.”
“The ABTraceTogether app connects to Alberta’s contact tracing system, which has led the country in terms of contact tracing,” Premier Jason Kenney said on Nov. 2.
“Based on the advice we’ve received so far, it’s more effective as a public health tool.”
Out of the 268,064 people who have downloaded ABTraceTogether, 66 per cent have it on iOS and 34 per cent have it on Android.
The province has stressed a strong contact-tracing system is a cornerstone of Alberta’s pandemic response.
On Nov. 5, Hinshaw announced that contact tracers were unable to keep up with the sharp rise in cases in the province, and therefore contact tracing was being focused on cases linked to high-priority settings, such as a schools, health-care facilities or group events.
Outside of those high-priority settings, people will be responsible for letting their own close contacts know they’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and should self-isolate and get tested.
According to Hinshaw, every positive case will still get a call from an Alberta contact tracer, who will then work to determine how they were exposed and where they may have gone while infectious.
Once installed, the ABTraceTogether app uses a phone’s Bluetooth to log anytime it comes within two metres of another person with the app for a cumulative 15 minutes.
The phones detect each other and exchange anonymous encrypted data, but no information is uploaded at that time — it is just stored in the app.
If that person tests positive for COVID-19, they can agree to share the app’s encrypted encounter history data with public health officials, who then notify the close contacts they may have been exposed.
“The app does not use your phone’s GPS and does not track the user’s location or contacts. The only information exchanged between users’ phones is a random ID that is non-identifying. Nothing that is identifiable is exchanged,” Hinshaw explained on May 1.
“After 21 days, each day’s worth of data is deleted one day at a time.”
However there were initially some issues with the iOS version of the app where it would only work when the phone is on, screen is unlocked and the app is running in the foreground.
The premier said the issues with the iOS version of Alberta’s app were resolved Sept. 28.
The national COVID Alert app also uses Bluetooth to exchange randomly generated codes with nearby phones, and every day it checks the list of codes from people who reported to the app that they tested positive. If an app user has been near one of the codes on the list, that person will get a notification from the app, warning them of a possible exposure to coronavirus.
The app doesn’t require contact tracers to translate the data and track down potential close contacts like Alberta’s does.
That is one of the reasons Ziad Fazel, an engineer who’s worked in app development, has been advocating the province to bring the federal app to Alberta.
“That’s a benefit — not a defect — because our contact tracers are swamped,” he said. “So the fact it doesn’t wait for them is a benefit.”
Smartphone-based peer-to-peer notification — also called exposure notification — can automatically alert people they’ve been exposed to COVID-19, ask them to isolate and stop further transmission before an overwhelmed contact tracer could, Fazel said.
“It’s days ahead of contact tracers — if that even occurs anymore — so it can be lifesaving.”
He said integrating the two apps wouldn’t be as challenging as politicians say.
“There’s no reason you can’t turn on the federal app and then migrate the users over.”
Fazel would love to see Alberta embrace the COVID Alert app but doesn’t “see a path to that.”
“There’s no technical reason, there’s no operational reason, there’s no cost reason… it’s only because Jason Kenney doesn’t want it to happen.”
On Monday, Alberta identified 860 new COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours. It also recorded the deadliest day since the pandemic began: 20 Albertans with the virus died in a one-day period.
Hinshaw said Alberta’s positivity rate is about seven per cent.